Brandy Carlson has a lot to be nervous about.
Her husband would have been released from his prison term at Hutchinson Correctional Facility in September if he had received good time credit, as the family expected, for his kidnapping sentence.
But instead he is in limbo, with an expected release date of January 2023 looming in the distance.
While the Kansas Department of Corrections reports no active inmate cases of COVID-19 at HCF, nine staff cases and a rising number of infections has increased Carlson’s fears about her husband, who has a depressed immune system and already contracted hepatitis while in state custody.
Meanwhile, the two have not seen each other in person since before the pandemic, with Carlson unable to drive the two-and-a-half-hours to Hutchinson for a brief visit behind Plexiglass.
The family is in the middle of adopting a 9-year-old son. Michael calls Carlson’s husband, Jimi Lee, “Pops” and looks forward to their three-times-a-week video calls but said he would rather see him in person.
“So he can fix my bike,” he said.
The family has two video calls already scheduled for Christmas Day so the family can have some semblance of normalcy on their first holiday together.
“They get along really well,” Carlson said. “I don’t know who is more excited, truthfully. My husband … is excited to be a father again.”
That isn’t all. An older family friend is housed in El Dorado Correctional Facility, which has been locked down due to a lack of staffing and a rising threat of COVID-19. And her son is incarcerated at Hutchinson due to a parole violation.
“I feel like they could do better than what they are,” Carlson said of KDOC.
Frustration is running high amid renewed concern about the situation in state prisons, both with respect to COVID-19 and perilously low staffing levels that have prompted modified operations in the state’s two largest prisons.
But the lockdowns are not being uniformly enforced, family members say, meaning an inmate’s access to services and support varies based on their unit and location, leading to concern for those who are set to be released or eligible for parole in the near future.
Meanwhile, frustration is running high for individuals who are staying in their cells for all but a half hour per day, leading to fears that low staffing levels and flaring tempers could continue to create safety risks for staff members and inmates alike.
“We don’t have enough staff and it is dangerous, because the people are getting pissed off because they’ve been in cages for almost two years,” said Brandilyn Parks, executive director of the Kansas Coalition for Prison and Sentencing Reform. “I mean, it’s definitely coming to a boiling point.”
‘If there were other options, we would implement them, but there are not’
Lansing and El Dorado have been under staffing emergencies since the summer months, though the situation has worsened in recent months.
Two correctional officers at Lansing have been attacked in the last six weeks, with staff shortages blamed for the incidents. Both staff members was hospitalized as a result of their injuries, the union representing state corrections officers said at the time.
More:Corrections officer hospitalized after inmate attack at Lansing Correctional Facility
The staffing shortage meant KDOC halted in-person visits at Lansing in November.
“The changes described here are not taken lightly, particularly given that the holiday season is upon us,” KDOC Secretary Jeff Zmuda wrote in a letter to families dated Nov. 24. “If there were other options, we would implement them, but there are not.”
The policies, as well as increased lockdowns, restrictions on some services and other schedule changes, signal the prison is “likely to remain in this operational status for an extended period of time,” Zmuda wrote.
But families and staff note the Lansing changes are not being consistently implemented. Business has continued as usual in most units at Lansing Correctional Facility — except the maximum security unit, said Audry Piert, who has a loved one incarcerated in the facility.
Sarah LaFrenz, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, said the inconsistent nature of how the lockdowns were carried out at Lansing meant uncertainty for staff and inmates alike.
“I think they appear to just kind of define it as they go along like it which doesn’t always seem to me to be a really good process,” LaFrenz said.
Piert said it was particularly frustrating, as at least one of the attacks had occurred in a medium security unit, yet KDOC has maintained locking down the maximum security area should be a top priority for safety purposes.
“Maybe they’re given 20 minutes a day,” Piert said of the inmates on the maximum security unit. “And that’s if they’re lucky. KDOC is not following their own protocol. Whatever whim or whatever mood whatever person shows up for their shift that night, that’s how it goes. As so this has become incredible volatile.”
Randall Bowman, director of external affairs for KDOC, acknowledged in an email that “modified operations currently in place do impact our residents differently.”
But he added “units where the risk to the safety of everyone are the greatest is in our maximum custody units,” prompting tighter conditions there.
“If staffing levels require in the future, or on a given shift, those same modifications would be extended to other units,” Bowman said. “But providing call outs, programs, dayroom, yard, etc. for as many residents as available staffing will allow is the goal.”
But the swift change on visitation was particularly brutal given that it came around the holidays, family said.
Parks noted Lansing held a banquet for a faith-based program which aims to help with re-entry, which occurred in one of the cell blocks at Lansing — while families remain shut out. Bowman countered the event was allowed because it did not require the same ongoing staff investment as visitation.
“Families are, you know, gathered together having (Thanksgiving) dinner, and then you find out once again, that you’re losing your visitation with your loved ones in prison, Piert said. “That was pretty tacky.”
Limited services for inmates prompt re-entry concern
At El Dorado Correctional Facility, modified operations have become the norm — restrictions have been in place there since early October.
Brian Betts, an inmate at El Dorado, said the current state of affairs “are worse than they’ve ever been during my 24 years of incarceration.”
Betts is set to appear before the parole board in a year’s time. But a lack of staff has left him unable to use a career center in the prison to polish his resume and begin preparing for a work search — elements that could strengthen his case for parole.
Other inmates, he said, were due to be released soon, with no access to services to help them successfully re-enter society.
“We are being denied the opportunity to utilize the tools and resources that our tax dollars provide the prison and KDOC with to help prepare us to be productive when released and prevent us from returning to prison,” Betts said.
The modified lockdown even means access to the law library is restricted, with inmates forced to request materials for staff to bring to their cells.
Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas, noted the limitations, while well-intentioned, were ultimately not the answer.
“The solution to put a facility on lockdown and remove all programming and access to services and supports that people rely on to maintain their humanity and their dignity while they’re incarcerated is not a solution to dealing with staffing shortages or the ongoing pandemic that we’re not going to be out of anytime soon,” Brett said.
Few easy answers to tackle staffing shortages
Meanwhile, the staffing shortages inside prisons appear unlikely to ease anytime soon. Workers are required to take on 12-hour shifts and work mandatory overtime.
Families say they are sympathetic to the concerns from overworked staff but note the challenges date back to well before the pandemic.
“I don’t think anybody would not agree that they definitely need to have the appropriate amount of staff,” Piert said. “But this didn’t just happen. This has been a massive exodus for five, seven years. And the governors and the secretaries of corrections have just ignored this and allowed it to come to this.”
The situation has prompted calls to bring in the Kansas National Guard to stabilize the situation.
But the guard is limited in what it can do to aid in the COVID-19 response.
Because there is no active statewide disaster declaration related to the pandemic after Republican lawmakers ended the emergency in May, “the Kansas Guard can not be tasked without one,” agency spokesperson Jane Welch said in an email.
Even if the guard could be deployed, it is likely they would be limited in what duties they could perform.
Guard members provided support at Lansing last year when the prison was the site of a massive COVID-19 outbreak but it was largely limited to medical and support duties, not taking on safety roles.
Meanwhile, Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration is hoping a proposed plan to give corrections staff both temporary pay hikes and bonuses as well as more permanent raises will help attract more workers.
A panel of top lawmakers approved up to $30.3 million in federal aid for this purpose and it is likely legislators will be asked to use some of the state’s expected budget surplus to make the changes permanent.
“These are the guys that are frontline and, for lack of a better term, deserve more competitive wages,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover,.
Even if the pay raises help turn things around, however, LaFrenz estimated it would take three to six months to stabilize the situation. Bowman, of KDOC, said their human resources staff is incorporating the raises “into their processes” but noted they have not yet “seen a noticeable impact” on recruitment as of yet.
Meanwhile, Brett argued increasing pay was diverting attention away from the real solution, which should be a meaningful conversation about shrinking the prison population.
“We have a platform that is about reducing mass incarceration and there’s no component of raising staff salaries that gets towards that goal,” she said.
Instead, the ACLU was “hopeful that there will be another round of” clemency applications approved soon.
In June, Kelly signed off on five commutations and three pardons, the most approved by any governor in at least 15 years, though it fell short of what groups like the ACLU had been pushing for.
Since then, the group had been working with Kelly’s office on the matter, though staffing changes could slow the process down.
Bowman maintained the agency’s COVID-19 mitigation tactics were working, though he said “we are always concerned about the potential impact of community spread.”
But with virus cases likely to rise in prisons in the near future — and reports of spotty mask wearing and access to sanitation supplies — Brett said officials needed to be thinking boldly.
“These are big problems that need to be met with creative, comprehensive solutions,” she said.
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 443-979-6100.